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Drug Czar Gupta Wraps Up Three-Day Visit to West Virginia

photo by: Photo by Steven Allen Adams

Photo by Steven Allen Adams Rahul Gupta, right, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, speaks with 5th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Anita Harold Ashley at a roundtable event in Charleston Thursday.

CHARLESTON – Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, spent the last three days on a listening tour in West Virginia – the state where he once served as chief health officer.

Gupta spent Thursday morning in Putnam County where he announced a nationwide program to fund 99 youth substance use prevention groups part of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Drug-Free Communities program.

The initiative will provide $12.4 million in grant funding for prevention programs to keep children away from prescription drugs, tobacco, marijuana, and alcohol. The program is a partnership with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Around lunchtime, Gupta participated in a roundtable discussion of the substance use overdose epidemic in West Virginia at the Culture Center in Charleston. Gupta was joined by state and local public health leaders, clergy, law enforcement, and Gayle Manchin, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission and wife of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

“We passed the tragic milestone of 100,000 (overdose) deaths in any given year now,” Gupta said. “This issue doesn’t care about politics. It doesn’t care if you’re black or white, rural or urban, rich or poor. It just doesn’t. It’s very indiscriminate the way it works.”

Gupta said fewer than one in 10 people are getting the substance use treatment they need. Synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl, are making it harder to fight substance abuse. And with the supply chain of drugs being driven by profit, Gupta said the challenges remain daunting.

These factors went into President Joe Biden’s 2022 National Drug Control Strategy, which he unveiled during his State of the Union speech earlier this year. The seven-part plan includes expanding access to evidence-based treatment, including access to medications for opioid use disorder; factoring in racial equity in treatment; supporting harm-reduction programs; prevention efforts start with children; reducing the supply of illegal drugs; getting those in recovery into the workforce; and expanding access to services.

“If we don’t implement this, we’re going to see about 165,000 deaths per year by 2025,” Gupta said. “If we implement this, we can cut that number by more than half and possibly save tens of thousands of lives, American lives, that we’re losing at a very fast rate with Americans being killed every five minutes around the clock.”

Gupta pointed to two $1 million grants through the Rural Communities Opioid Response program through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services earlier this week by Manchin and U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. The grants will go to Boone Memorial Hospital and West Virginia University for rural substance use treatment and prevention programs

“Here is the bottom line: if it remains easier to get illicit drugs rather than get treatment in America, we’re not going to solve the problem,” Gupta said. “When we talk about prevention and recovery, workforce and treatment, recovery and intervention are so critical.”

Dr. Matthew Christiansen, director of the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy, cited CDC numbers showing that West Virginia is one of six states that have seen a reduction in 12-month addiction numbers since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 4% decrease in overdose numbers.

There were 1,504 confirmed drug overdose deaths in 2021 according to DHHR, a 12.6% increase from 1,336 confirmed overdose deaths in 2020. Christiansen said state health officials have focused on greater collaboration with state and local communities and partners, being innovative and taking successful local efforts and implementing them statewide, and listening to people in recovery on what works and doesn’t work.

“Everyone at this table knows we can’t solve this issue alone, but we can solve it together,” Christiansen said. “We will never be OK with any overdose death in the state of West Virginia, but it is worth mentioning our successes, too. Of the 1,500 people who have passed away over the previous year, that number represents about 2% of the people in West Virginia with a substance abuse disorder. That means that the programs deployed … that’s 98% of those people we are keeping alive.”

Earlier in the week, Gupta participated in a national drug control question-and-answer session at the University of Charleston on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Gupta attended a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas roundtable with law enforcement and a K9 demonstration, an award ceremony, and a Recovery-Ready Workplace roundtable discussion with ARC federal co-chair Manchin.

Gupta was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as ONDCP director, sometimes called drug czar, last October. He was nominated by Biden for the position in July 2021. He previously served as senior vice president and chief medical and health officer for the March of Dimes.

Gupta was first appointed as state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health within the Department of Health and Human Resources by former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in 2015. He left DHHR in 2018, finishing out his service under Gov. Jim Justice. Gupta led the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department starting in 2009.

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